How does 3D printing of metal work?

In the 15th century, the printing press made for a great advance by facilitating the dissemination of knowledge. Today, 3D printing may generate a similar revolution in the manufacturing industry.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is the creation of objects through combining different layers of materials laid successively on top of each other. This is done by starting with a digital model and using different computer and printing technologies.

This technology has been with us for some time. Its origins date back to 1976, when additive manufacturing equipment and materials were developed, although it was not until 1983 that we began experimenting with printing using materials other than ink.

When we talk about 3D printing, the first material that comes to mind is plastic, but this type of technology works with different raw materials, such as resins or metals. Choosing one or the other will determined by the needs of hardness, flexibility or resistance of each industry or business.

3D printing on metals

Metal is one of the most widely used materials in 3D printing, as it is more flexible and durable than resins and harder than plastic. Many different metals are used: stainless steel, bronze, aluminum, nickel, titanium and even gold.

As in printing with other materials, everything starts with the 3D model of the part we want to print. This is usually done by creating an STL or CAD file that shows the part as a huge number of superimposed layers. It is these layers that must be printed and merged. The most common method is to use powdered metal and fuse it together using one of the following techniques:

  • With a metal binder. In this process a substance similar to glue is used to bind the metal powder. It is the cheapest method, but the result is fragile, as the resulting piece is full of air and has a porous texture. Sometimes it is filled with other metals such as bronze to gain strength.
  • Powder bed fusion. Instead of a binder, a high temperature laser or an electron beam is used to melt the metal powder and create a solid layer. This method is the most widely used, as it gives a much more durable result, even though it is more difficult to achieve.

Metal printing is currently only available on an industrial scale. However, there are domestic printers that use metal wire and mix plastic materials with metal fibers. They are able to produce objects with a metallic appearance.

Advantages of 3D printing

The benefits of 3D printing are especially noticeable in the manufacturing industry owing to several factors:

  • Time saving. 3D printing allows for faster prototyping and therefore a faster move into production. Different designs can be printed at greater speed and at a lower cost,
  • facilitating testing and decision-making.
  • Cost reduction. The cost of production is constant and its ease of repeatability allows for greater automation of production. In addition, as it is a faster process, it is possible to print only what you need at the moment.
  • Versatility and customization. The same 3D printer can create a multitude of complex shapes, whereas in traditional manufacturing we would need different machines and tools.
  • Sustainability. With 3D printing only the necessary material is used, so less waste is generated.

Like all technologies, 3D printing also has disadvantages. On the one hand, it can facilitate the replication of copyrighted objects. On the other hand, although their cost has gone down in recent years, 3D printers remain expensive.

Uses of 3D printing in metal

In many cases, 3D printing is intended only for specific parts of the production chain, such as prototyping or making replacement parts. However, it is becoming increasingly widespread in other industries too, such as jewelry-making, where time is saved not only in producing pieces, but also in engraving. Engineering, architecture, and the automotive, aerospace and medical industries are other sectors that are benefiting from the advantages of 3D metal printing.

At ULMA Forged Solutions we can help you with your 3D project. Tell us your idea and how we can help you.